The latest edition of The World Atlas of Wine claims that the Douro Valley would be a top contender for winner of a wine region beauty contest … and I agree. But while there is no question that the Douro holds one of the most breathtaking landscapes of any area under vine in the world, its romantic appeal certainly doesn’t stop at its topography.
Many wine-lovers are intimidated by the Douro’s complexity, more so even than the labyrinthine jigsaw of Burgundy’s 'climats'. It is true that the Douro’s mountainous and literally multi-faceted terrain means that possibilities are endless for winemakers, not to mention the huge variance in rainfall levels, average temperatures and elevations across its 250,000 hectares. For me, this is one of its biggest attractions.
Schist – or 'xisto' in Portuguese – is the legendary bedrock on which all the Douro’s wines are made. It is so legendary that chapels have been dedicated to it, such as at the village of Sao Xisto in the eastern reaches of the valley. This hard rock, churned up with rude materials from the seventeenth century onwards, was fashioned into rugged terraces or 'socalcos' sporting just one row of vines each and with little-to-no room for mechanisation. These original terraces blend seamlessly into the landscape, following the natural contours of the mountains to the point where the valley is unimaginable without them. Despite improvements and more advanced terrace designs in more recent times, the methods required to maintain vines on these slopes remain harsh and labour-intensive to this day – but the wines produced couldn’t be more worth it.
These poor rocky soils - along with the Douro’s hot, dry climate - forces vines to reach deeper for nutrients, increasing their durability and resulting in deep, complex and concentrated wines. When visiting the valley this May, at the heart of the region in the tiny but charming one-horse-town of Pinhao, temperatures were already pushing above 30 Celsius. Perched above the river on a dusty schistous ledge among the vines, the heat began to feel worryingly oppressive for me- especially at the time of year of my visit - until just as the thought crossed my mind, a gentle breeze wafted up from the river below and gently ruffled the Spring foliage of the vines … just enough to provide some relief from the baking sun.
These conditions are perfect for the long-lived Port wines for which the region is most famous and are what made me fall in love with wine in the first place! Dark, black-fruited and concentrated when young; mellow, complex and aristocratic when old. Some spend more than a century in bottle before losing their red fruit character, the best examples among the greatest wines ever produced. In tandem with Port, dry table wines or “Douro DOC” have sky-rocketed in quality, gaining as notable a reputation as some of their fortified counterparts. Some Douro DOC wines such as the pioneer Barca Velha fetch as much as £500 a bottle. Clearly, these wines speak for themselves.
There is no doubt that the Douro is one of the most challenging places to farm grapes in the world, but the juice it produces is the stuff of legend. Its versatility is unrivalled, providing everything from fiery and concentrated ruby ports and long-lived red blends to floral, gentle roses and lush, swiggable whites. This place truly has something for everyone.
Although it may not seem like it at harvest time, do the Douro’s harsher conditions and the extraordinary toil required to make wine in the region reap greater rewards in the long run?
I think so.